As ‘indie’ as The Florida Project feels, it actually has a traditional three act structure with Act Two divided into two parts.
Act One: Introduction to the world of The Magic Castle and all of the key characters, most notably Moonee and her mother Halley. This is the subculture of the “hidden homeless”, yet the irony is Moonee and her friends, Scooty, Jancey, and Dicky, have fun despite their relative poverty.
However, the stakes are established straightaway on two fronts: (1) Social Services pressuring Halley to get work and at least three job leads to stay on child support. (2) Bobby — the manager of the motel. Yes, he is a kind soul and shows enormous patience with Moonee and her ‘gang’ of youthful troublemakers, but as we see (27–29), he has the authority to kick out families who don’t follow the rules. In my view, that scene essentially ends the setup of the story and Act One.
Act Two Part A: Whereas Act One has a surprisingly upbeat tone, at least from Moonee and her pals’ perspective, the first half of Act Two plays out a few subplots which deconstruct the illusion of relative happiness. Halley’s struggles to makes end meet financially get worse with a near brush with getting arrested. The children accidentally set afire some abandoned condos and when Scooty confesses, and Moonee and Jancey get blamed, that creates a schism between Halley and Ashley, Scooty no longer allowed to play with the girls. As Ashley has been a key cog in Halley’s emotional support system, as well as providing free food at the local Waffle House, this marks a significant setback (49–50). The fact Halley responds to this negative turn of events by hitchhiking to a field to watch the fireworks go off at Disneyworld to celebrate Moonee’s birthday (51–52), while a thoughtful gesture for her daughter, is another sign of Halley’s instinct to deny how deeply in trouble she is. We enter the second half of Act Two with a sense that dire events lie ahead.
Act Two Part B: Indeed, things continue to get worse with Halley resorting to prostitution. The fact the male tricks are actually in the motel room while Moonee is sent to take a bath… indeed, one guy uses the bathroom to pee while Moonee is right there behind the shower curtain… shows how close the reality of the family’s increasingly troublesome circumstances are getting to Moonee. The upbeat and fun tone of Act One has vanished, replaced by an ever more threatening set of events.
Beyond the prostitution scenes, there are two other scenes which intensify the devolving state of affairs for Halley and Moonee: (1) The duo is forced to move out of their motel room for one night, a way of fooling government officials, but a harbinger of unsettling things to come. (2) The creepy guy hanging out with the kids, presumably a pedophile, who (fortunately) Bobby chases away. Both sequences drive home how precarious life is for the residents of the motel, especially Moonee.
Everything leads to a big blowup between Halley and Ashley in which Halley beats up her former friend during an argument (81–83). This marks the All Is Lost moment and the end of Act Two.
Act Three: Warned that the Investigator and Case Worker will be back at the end of the week to check Halley to see if she’s been using drugs, Halley gets rid of her stash, but she sees the writing on the wall. She takes Moonee for breakfast at a fancy hotel. What at first seems like another attempt by Halley to deny the trouble she’s in actually turns out to be a final celebration of mother with daughter. Immediately thereafter, the authorities show up indicating they have surveillance video showing Halley having had nine different men enter her motel room for the purposes of having sex for pay. They are going to take Moonee away from Halley.
Moonee bolts. She races to see Jancey. In a heartbreaking moment, she bursts into tears, unable to say goodbye to her only friend in the world.
The pair take off running and in the Denouement — filmed in such a way to suggest it’s a hyper-reality or fantasy — they end up at Disneyworld, the actual Magic Kingdom.
So as indie as the story’s sensibilities are — subject matter, film and editing style, gritty realism — the story structure follows a traditional three-act model, and that structure serves the narrative well.